Climax Portable Machine Tools is among a handful of companies that work to meet some of the biggest challenges faced by power companies today. And as more new builds are announced, and upgrades demanded to meet growing power supply, the company’s special on-site machine tools business is growing.

Climax makes tools especially for difficult power-plant projects. Service providers will use these to carry out challenging tasks, from repairing a leak in a hard-to-reach area at the Ringhals Nuclear Reactor in Sweden to increasing the power generating capacity of turbines.

Here, following Arena International’s Plim + Plex Europe event that took place in Paris 11-12 May, and in the lead up to its New Build Europe 2010 event in Dusseldorf, Germany, 26-27 May, we caught up with Climax Portable Tools vice president Andy Becker to find out how the industry is moving today, and why Climax’ particular offering is in demand.

Power Technology: Demand for power plants has grown considerably in recent years, with the number of new projects on the rise. Where do you see most of the activity in the market at the moment?

“To extend the plant’s operating life by an additional 20-30 years, operators are facing a multitude of safety and environmental constraints.”

Andy Becker: Prior to the worldwide economic downturn we saw a high level of activity from the wind power segment, especially for our portable circular mills, which are utilised to correct flatness issues with wind tower connecting flanges.

During the economic downturn we have seen a bigger demand for our "uprate" machining solutions whereby our machines are used to increase the efficiency of existing power turbine installations so that existing plants are able to produce more power from the same turbine. This has been particularly helpful to counteract the reduced capital money available for building completely new plants.

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How long has Climax Portable Machine Tools been working in this market?

Climax Portable Machine Tools was founded in 1966. Our success is founded on the basic premise that we can manufacture portable machine tools that can provide the power and precision of traditional large stationary machine tools but which offer our customers portability so our machines can be used on-site for critical repairs at their facility.

Rather than having to disassemble a large component and transport it to a traditional machine shop, a Climax Portable Machine Tools solution allows the component to be repaired (or built) right on location.

“Failure to meet these time requirements can result in substantial monetary fines for the service providers that utilise our machines.”

You say you extend the operating life of existing power plants – how do you do this?

Climax is able to extend the operating life of existing power plants by designing and manufacturing specialised portable machine tools, which can make difficult repairs on critical power plant components. In many cases, if these repairs were not completed, the plant would lose its operating licence.

We have been particularly successful in helping nuclear power plants achieve their operating licence renewals by designing computer numerically controlled (CNC) remotely controlled machines, which can perform critical repairs inside the reactor pressure vessel where radioactivity levels will not allow a human to operate the machine.

What constraints are power plant operators in the nuclear industry up against today when it comes to increasing the life of their plant?

When first built, nuclear power plants were designed to operate for 30 years. Most of the world’s 430 nuclear power plants are 30 or more years old. To extend the plant’s operating life by an additional 20-30 years, operators are facing a multitude of safety and environmental constraints.

Many of the safety constraints are based on how materials age in a radioactive environment. For example, one critical issue was the advanced ageing of Inconel 600 weld material inside the reactor pressure vessel. This material was subject to premature cracking in a radiated environment. In many cases this weld material must be removed as a part of the licence renewal process and Climax has designed custom machines to expedite such removal.

“Nuclear projects are often our most challenging projects.”

You have helped quite a few plants by making critical repairs to systems. Can you tell us more about how this helps the power company, both with operations and investment?

In many cases, our machines complete critical repairs, which if not done would result in the power plant losing its operating licence. Since the average nuclear power plant generates $800,000 to $1,000,000 per day, our specialised machining solutions can provide utilities with very substantial savings.

We are also able to help minimise a plant’s downtime. In a recent example, we were told our machine had five days to complete a critical repair to a nuclear power plant. The service team was able to complete the repair in two and a half days providing the utility with close to $2,000,000 in additional power-generating revenues thanks to the reduced plant down time.

You worked on the oldest plant in Sweden when its reactor stopped working – can you tell us more about that project?

We developed a machine to work on the Ringhals Nuclear Reactor in Sweden. The reactor was still working but a leak was discovered in a pipe leading to a valve that was part of the control rod drive mechanism (CRDM), which controlled the emergency shutdown system by injecting rods into the nuclear reaction vessel.

The Swedish Inspectorate mandated that the power plant operate with the defective rod in "up" position until the leaking pipe could be repaired. This meant that the plant was not operating at full efficiency. Furthermore, the inspectorate specified that the plant’s operating licence renewal was contingent on repairing the defective pipe. The plant’s service provider, Uddcomb Engineering, was given a five-day window to complete the repair.

Climax worked closely with Uddcomb Engineering personnel to design a special CNC machine that was placed up inside the valve and featured a cutting arm that extended out to the damaged section of pipe. Our machine was able to cut out the damaged pipe section and re-finish the ends so the Uddcomb Engineering could weld in a new pipe section.

Our machine completed the job by finishing off the inside of the pipe to the required surface finish. The entire job was completed in two and a half days, half of the time allocated to the repair process.

So is the time crucial in these projects?

Time is very critical. In a majority of cases our machines are utilised during pre-arranged maintenance shutdown periods and we are assigned a specific time frame in which the job must be completed. Failure to meet these time requirements can result in substantial monetary fines for the service providers that utilise our machines.

Being a service provider, how difficult do you find working with nuclear projects? 

Nuclear projects are often our most challenging projects. Many require remote CNC control consoles when the area to be machined is inside the reactor pressure vessel in a radiated zone.

Nuclear projects also have very strict material requirements in terms of what materials we are able to use to manufacturer our machining solutions. While nuclear projects are among our most challenging, they have also provided some of our most rewarding results.

Are there many other providers offering such bespoke solutions in the market at the moment?

There are several providers of standard portable machine tools. While Climax provides 35 different models of standard portable machine tools, we are also positioned to provide [emergency services] for one-of-a-kind specialty machine tools for critical repairs.

Where can you see the power market heading in future?

We continue to see a strong future for nuclear power, but growth in nuclear will be slow due to the permitting process. This will put a lot of pressure on keeping the existing 430 worldwide nuclear power plants operating for an additional 20 to 30 years until new nuclear plants are built.

Climax has produced a variety of CNC boring machines that are used to increase the electric power generating capacity of existing turbines by enlarging turbine housing and steam nozzles so an existing plant can produce more electric power without having to build a whole new facility.

We believe that efficiency processes such as these will continue to play a major role in the worldwide marketplace. By increasing the efficiency of the power-generating process we will be able to better conserve our finite supply of fossil and nuclear fuels, giving researchers more time to develop additional processes for power generation based upon renewable resources.

We are also working on providing machining solutions for building prototype atomic fusion reactors that will ultimately be better able to serve the world’s growing appetite for power.

These issues and more will be discussed at Arena International’s upcoming power event New Build Europe, 26-27 May at Dusseldorf, Germany. For more information see